Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, journalist, and author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.
Artificial Knees. Total hip replacements. Cataract surgery. Hearing aids. Dentures. We are a society bent on improving human health through substitution and augmentation of our body parts. But one of the most important goals of transhumanist medicine—possessing a perfectly healthy heart—has so far remained elusive. This week, we came a step closer when for the second time ever, a French company implanted a permanent artificial heart in a patient.
Heart disease is the number one killer in America: It claims nearly 800,000 lives every year, making it the cause of roughly one in three deaths. But radical new medical technology may soon change that: Expect the possibility of trading in your biological heart for a better, artificial one in about a decade's time.
There have been over 1,000 artificial heart transplant surgeries carried out in humans over the last 35 years. Probably the most famous is Dr. Barney Clark, a Seattle dentist who survived 112 days in 1982 with an implanted Jarvik-7, the first device designed to completely replace the heart. Over 11,000 more heart surgeries where valve pumps were installed have also been performed—former Vice President Dick Cheney received one in 2010.
Replacing the human heart with a robotic version is on the rise around the world. However, nearly all operations currently carried out are only a temporary bridge to buy precious time until a biological heart transplant can be made. Transplants of biological hearts, while often successful, are very difficult to come by, due to a shortage of suitable organs. Over 100,000 people around the world at any given time are waiting for a heart. Even Dick Cheney had to wait 20 months to find a heart appropriate for his body. There simply are not enough healthy hearts available for the thousands who need them.
This shortage has prompted numerous medical companies to jump into the artificial heart game, where the creation of a successful and permanent robotic heart could generate billions of dollars and help revolutionize medicine and health care.
Last December, one such company took a giant leap ahead. French-based Carmat performed the world's first total artificial heart implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought.
Want to meditate? Turn the artificial heart to Buddha mode. Want to emulate a porn star? Turn it up for wild sex.
Carmat—led by co-founder and heart transplant specialist Dr. Alain Carpentier—spent 25 years developing the heart. The device weighs three times that of an average human heart, is made of soft "biomaterials," and operates off a five-year lithium battery. The key difference between Carmat's heart and past efforts is that Carmat's is self-regulating, and actively seeks to mimic the real human heart, via an array of sophisticated sensors.
Unfortunately, the patient who received the first Carmat heart died prematurely only a few months after its installation. Early indications show there was a short circuit in the device, but Carmat is still investigating the details of the death.
On September 5th, however, another patient in France received the Carmat heart. "This intervention confirms that heart transplant procedures are entering a new era," French Health Minister Marisol Touraine said Monday in a statement, according to the AFP.
Naturally, some critics worry that, beyond the efficacy of the device itself, an artificial heart is too large a step towards becoming a cyborg—a term the public still isn't yet comfortable with. However, many futurists, like myself, believe such transhumanist tech won't scare most people in the long run.
When you talk about replacing an arm—another technology that is already here and may become elective in as soon as 10 years—people freak out. They are not ready to see themselves in the mirror or at the beach with a metal or rubbery prosthetic, even if functionally, it's actually better than their original arm. But the artificial heart will be hidden inside the body, and it will soon be better than the heart of any Olympian athlete.
I surmise that millions will electively line up for it when it becomes available, even if they have healthy biological hearts. The biggest dilemma with the heart will probably be affordability. Currently, the Carmat heart costs about $200,000.
More than just pumping blood, future artificial hearts will bring numerous other advantages with them. They will have computer chips and wi-fi capacity built into them. We'll control our hearts with our smart phones, tuning down its pumping capacity when we want to sleep, or tuning it up when we want to run marathons.
The benefits could be endless. Have you ever been super nervous—such as on a first date, or while giving a public speech—and could feel your biological heart incessantly pounding? In the future, you'll just adjust your artificial heart to the right level for whatever context or experience you are in. Want to meditate? Turn the artificial heart to Buddha mode. Want to emulate a porn star? Turn it up for wild sex.
Of course, health experts would probably find this problematic. For example, our heart responds to its surroundings for a reason, and overriding such stimuli may cause unintended consequences. The body and its other organs may not be able to keep up with a fired-up 65-year-old who has purposely sped up his heart in order to surf giant Hawaiian waves.
Future artificial hearts may also replace the need for some doctor visits and physicals. Every second of the day, the device will monitor your health and blood, and relay updates of oxygen levels, whether you've contracted HIV, or if your alcohol content is too much for driving. In fact, much of that cool wearable medical tech that is in vogue right now, like the Fitbit Flex, will likely become obsolete once the artificial heart arrives in its perfected form.
One major downside of artificial hearts is their exposure to being hacked. Imagine the chaos that the mafia, an authoritarian government, or malignant hackers could cause if one's artificial heart were targeted. Viruses could be sent into the heart's software, or the password to the app controlling your heart could be stolen and misused.
Dick Cheney was so worried about his implanted heart defibrillator being attacked by terrorists during his vice presidency that he asked to have its wi-fi capabilities removed, according to his book, Heart: An American Medical Odyssey.
Of course, the hacking of hearts already happens in a metaphorical way, whether by malice, love, or chance. Just think of your first passionate romance, or your dearest family members. My young daughters have long held the keys to my heart.
At a recent press conference, Carmat's Dr. Carpentier put it differently, repeating the words of the famous French poet Calude Bernard: "Whatever the poets may say, the heart is just a pump."